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Monkey business in autism research

NOTE: I had originally planned on posting Part II of a series on cancer screening. However, something came up on Friday that, in my estimation, requires a timely response. I should also inform readers that, because next Monday is a holiday here in the U.S., I haven’t yet decided whether I will be doing a post next week or not. Stay tuned and check back.

I get e-mail.

Sometimes the e-mail is supportive. Other times, as you might imagine, given some of my posts, it is anything but. On Friday afternoon, I happened to notice an e-mail from an “admirer” of mine that said something like this:

You are a complete jack-ass.

- Generation Rescue

Appended to the e-mail was a link to this article on the Age of Autism blog.

Generation Rescue, as you may recall, is an organization that promotes the idea that vaccines cause autism, and this e-mail almost certainly came from the founder and head of GR, a man named J.B. Handley. In case you don’t know who he is, Handley is a man who is, even by the standards of antivaccinationists, incredibly boorish and possessed of a bull-in-a-china shop manner that alienates even some potentially sympathetic people, although parents who believe that vaccines cause autism seem to love him. He is also quite–shall we say?–flexible in his notions of how vaccines cause autism. Until about a year ago, the Generation website stated unequivocally:

Generation Rescue believes that childhood neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD/ADD, speech delay, sensory integration disorder, and many other developmental delays are all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning.

About a year ago, it changed to:

We believe these neurological disorders (“NDs”) are environmental illnesses caused by an overload of heavy metals, live viruses, and bacteria. Proper treatment of our children, known as “biomedical intervention”, is leading to recovery for thousands.

The cause of this epidemic of NDs is extremely controversial. We believe the primary causes include the tripling of vaccines given to children in the last 15 years (mercury, aluminum and live viruses); maternal toxic load and prenatal vaccines; heavy metals like mercury in our air, water, and food; and the overuse of antibiotics.

The kind interpretation is that GR was changing its hypothesis given that the data being published consistently and strongly refuted the myth that mercury in vaccines somehow cause autism. In reality, though, it’s fairly clear that GR was pivoting effortlessly to a hypothesis that not only was nearly completely unfalsifiable but also allowed GR to continue to blame vaccines for autism, which is what it’s really about. More recently, as I have pointed out before, antivaccinationist rhetoric has also pivoted even further and equally as effortlessly to blame unspecified “toxins” or “combinations of toxins” in vaccines. Be that as it may, having felt the love, I have to admit that Mr. Handley sure does know how to charm a guy. When he draws my attention to some abstracts so politely, abstracts that he clearly considers to be very important evidence, how can I refuse to take a look? After all, Mr. Handley himself apparently very much wanted to point me in the direction of these three abstracts, and it would be downright churlish of me to deny him and refuse to look at the studies with as open a mind as possible.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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The early detection of cancer and improved survival: More complicated than most people think

“Early detection of cancer saves lives.”

How many times have you heard this statement or something resembling it? It’s a common assumption (indeed, a seemingly common sense assumption) that detecting cancer early is always a good thing. Why wouldn’t it always be a good thing, after all? For many cancers, such as breast cancer and colon cancer, there’s little doubt tha early detection at the very least makes the job of treating the cancer easier. Also, the cancer is detected at an earlier stage almost by definition. But does earlier detection save lives? This question, as you might expect, depends upon the tumor, its biology, and the quality and cost of the screening modality used to detect the cancer. Indeed, it turns out that the question of whether early detection saves lives is a much more complicated question to answer than you probably think, a question that even many doctors have trouble with. It’s also a question that can be argued too far in the other direction. In other words, in the same way that boosters of early detection of various cancers may sometimes oversell the benefits of early detection, there is a contingent that takes a somewhat nihilistic view of the value of screening and argues that it doesn’t save lives.

A corrollary of the latter point is that some boosters of so-called “alternative” medicine take the complexity of evaluating the effect of early screening on cancer mortality and the known trend towards diagnosing earlier and earlier stage tumors as saying that our treatments for cancer are mostly worthless and that the only reason we are apparently doing better against cancer is because of early diagnosis of lesions that would never progress. Here is a typical such comment from a frequent commenter whose hyperbolic style will likely be immediately recognizable to regular readers here:

Most cancer goes away, or never progresses, even with NO medical treatment. Most people who get cancer never know it. At least in the past, before early diagnosis they never knew it.

Now many people are diagnosed and treated, and they never get sick or die from cancer. But this would have also been the case if they were never diagnosed or treated.

Maybe early diagnosis and treatment do save the lives of a small percentage of all who are treated. Maybe not. We don’t know.

As is so often the case with such simplistic black and white statements, there is a grain of truth buried under the absolutist statement but it’s buried so deep that it’s well-nigh unrecognizable. Because we see this sort of statement frequently, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss some of the issues that make the reduction of mortality from cancer so difficult to achieve through screening. I will do this in two parts, although the next part may not necessarily appear next week
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants and autism: Is there a correlation?

ResearchBlogging.orgOn April 30, outside the courthouse in Dallas, a press conference/rally was held. This particular rally was in response to a new study published by a group led by Dr. Raymond F. Palmer in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, whose conclusion was that autism prevalence correlates strongly with proximity to mercury-emitting coal-burning power plants and other industrial sources of airborne mercury, the implication being that such sources of mercury may be causal or contributory to the development of autism. Unfortunately, the rally was reported by the media as though this study were slam dunk evidence that mercury environmental mercury is a definite contributor to the development of autism. For example, there is some video (also here) from local news sources of the rally, in the first of which it is stated as fact that mercury caused autism in the child featured in the story and in the second of which a mother who thinks that mercury causes autism is quoted credulously. This study has had much less play in the national news, but antivaccination activists, such as the ones at the Age of Autism website, a site whose main theme is that either mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in childhood vaccines before 2002 or vaccines themselves cause autism, both promoted the rally and posted a glowing and credulous take on the study, as did “alternative medicine” and antivaccinationist website NaturalNews.com.

My first thought upon reading of this is that it is yet more vindication of the science showing that the claim that mercury in thimerosal-containing vaccines is a failed hypothesis. After all, as I have predicted time and time again, as the scientific and epidemiological evidence continued to mount that thimerosal is just plain not associated with autism or autism spectrum disorders, even the most diehard adherents to this belief are starting to realize that they were backing a losing horse, especially since thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines other than the flu vaccine in 2001, leaving only trace amounts from the manufacturing process and there is no sign that autism prevalence is falling. That’s why lately, their effort has shifted from primarily demonizing mercury to blaming other “toxins” in vaccines, even to the point that their efforts to demonize some ingredient–any ingredient–in vaccines often reaches ridiculous levels of blatant silliness, such as touting sucrose as one of those “toxins.” Indeed, I was puzzled. If environmental mercury is the new cause of autism, then the rationale antivaccinationists use to demonize vaccines and portray their children as “vaccine-damaged” is much less potent. Why on earth would they tout this study, which, even if a good study (and it’s not), would weaken their arguments against vaccines immeasurably and take power away from their whole new propaganda slogan “Green Our Vaccines”? The only reason I could think of is that perhaps they somehow think that if mercury in the environment can be linked to autism that maybe–just maybe–they can convince people that they were right about mercury in vaccines all along. Indeed, this seems to be the sort of tack that David Kirby took a year ago when he started arguing that mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants in China (which do reach California), coupled with mercury emission from crematoria in which cadavers with mercury fillings were burned, were contributing to the continued increase in the autism caseload in California despite the elimination of thimerosal in 2001.

But what does the study say itself? Is it good evidence that airborne mercury from coal-fueled power plants is an important contributor to the development of autism? I will argue no, because the study’s flaws are so innumerable that it is well nigh uninterpretable. For simplicity’s sake, to summarize its findings, I’ll quote a Science Daily press release about it:
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The Increase in Autism Diagnoses: Two Hypotheses

A new study sheds more light on the question of what is causing the recent increase in the rate of diagnosis of autism. Professor Dorothy Bishop from the University of Oxford studied adults who were diagnosed in 1980 with a developmental language disorder. She asked the question – if these people were subjected to current diagnostic criteria for autism, how many of them would be diagnosed today as having autism? She found that 25% of them would. (Bishop 2008)

This epidemiological question has been at the center of a controversy over whether or not there is a link between vaccines (or the mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, that was previously in routine childhood vaccines) and autism. The primary evidence for this claim put forward by proponents of a link is that the number of diagnoses of autism increased dramatically at the same time that the number of vaccines routinely given to children was increasing in the 1990′s. They are calling this rise in autism an “epidemic” and argue that such an increase requires an environmental factor, which they believe is linked to vaccines.

That the number of new autism diagnoses is dramatically increasing is generally accepted and not a point of debate. The historical rate of autism is about 4 per 10,000 and the more recent estimates are in the range of 15-20 per 10,000 (30-60 per 10,000 for all pervasive developmental disorders of which autism is one type). (Rutter 2005) The controversy is about what is causing this rise in diagnoses. There are two basic hypotheses: 1) That the true incidence of autism is rising due to an environmental cause, 2) That the rise in incidence is mostly or completely an artifact of increased surveillance and broadening of the definition of autism. These two hypotheses make specific predictions, and there is much evidence to bring to bear on their predictions – this recent study only being the latest.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Cell Phones and Brain Tumors

The question of whether or not there is a link between the use of mobile phones (also called cell phones) and the risk of brain tumors has been cropping up more and more frequently in the media – every time a new study or analysis comes out. This is a very important question of public health as cell phone use is becoming more common, and brain tumors are a very serious and often life-threatening category of diseases.

Of course such questions are best answered by a dispassionate, careful, and systematic look at the science – what is the plausibility of a link and what is the evidence that there actually is one. At this point we are somewhere in the middle of studying this problem. We already have substantial data, but it is conflicting and the research community is still debating on how to get more definitive data everyone can agree upon. So at present there is a variety of opinions on the matter. The consensus seems to be that cell phones probably do not cause brain tumors, but we’re not sure, there is meaningful dissent from this opinion, and so more study is needed.

There are two types of scientific studies we can do to answer this question. The first is biological and looks at the effects of radiation, and specifically the type and strength of radiation emitted by cell phones, on cells in a test tube and on animals. This will tell us if a risk from cell phones is plausible, if there is a mechanism, and what, if any, the effects are likely to be. But this kind of data will not tell us if cell phones in fact have caused or are causing brain tumors.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health

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On the ethics of clinical trials of homeopathy in Third World countries

ResearchBlogging.orgI’m on the record multiple times as saying that I reject the entire concept and nomenclature of “alternative medicine” as being distinct from “conventional” medicine as a false dichotomy, when in reality there should be just “medicine.” Indeed, if there is one major theme to which this blog is dedicated it’s that medicine should be as much as possible science-based, a concept that takes into account not just clinical trials, which are prone to all sorts of false-positive results in the case of modalities that have no plausibility from a scientific perspective. In essence, I advocate treating “alternative” medicine the same as “conventional” medicine subjecting it to the same scientific process to determine whether it has efficacy or not, after which medicine that is effective is retained and used and medicine that fails the test is discarded. Where it comes from, the “alternative” or the “conventional” medical realm, matters little to me. All that matters is that it is based on sound science and that it has been demonstrated to have efficacy significantly greater than that of a placebo.

Given that, you’d think I’d be all in favor of subjecting alternative medicine, be it woo or more credible, to rigorous scientific testing. In many cases, you’d be right. My sole caveat is that, when testing alt-med, priority should be given to modalities that have at least a modicum of scientific plausibility, even if a bit tenuous. Herbal remedies would thus be at the front of my line to be tested, while obvious woo whose core principle on which it is based is so utterly ridiculous and scientifically implausible (like homeopathy, for instance) would be relegated to the back of line, if it’s ever tested at all. More implausible modalities that might work (albeit by a method that has nothing to do with the “life energy” manipulation that is claimed for it) like acupuncture would be somewhere in the middle. It’s a matter of resource prioritization, in which it makes little sense to test blatant woo before more plausible therapies are examined. Indeed, it’s arguable whether blatant woo like homeopathy should even have resources wasted testing it at all, given its extreme scientific improbability. Finally, regardless of what modality is being tested in scientific and/or clinical trials, it has to be done according to the highest ethical standards, on adults fully cognizant of or able to be taught about the questions being asked, the issues involved, and the potential risks who are thus able to give truly informed consent.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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When impressive science fails to impress patients

One of the greatest challenges in medicine can sometimes be to convince patients that the results of scientific and medical research apply to them, or, at the very least, to explain how such results apply. One of the reasons that medicine based not on science or evidence fluorishes is because it can be so hard to explain to patients why a particular intervention is viewed as effective. My co-blogger Steve Novella wrote about some of the fallibilities of human perception that lead to perceiving correlations and treatment effectiveness where there are none. R. Robert Bausell wrote about the same thing in his recent book Snake Oil Science. While it is undoubtedly true that people tend to pay more attention to anecdotes than to studies and statistics, there is also another reason why doctors often have problems convincing patients of the value of health interventions, and that’s the difference in perception and how we value different kinds of evidence.

A couple of years ago, I came across an article that explains this gulf between how those of us trying to practice science- and evidence-based medicine perceive the world and how most human beings not trained in medicine or science perceive it. The article, which was published in 2006 in the New York Times and written by Dr. Abigail Zuker, proposed one reason why this might be, beginning with a discussion with her mother in which she tries to convince her of the benefit of exercise, even in the elderly, a concept that her mother would have none of and dismissed contemptuously:

“Studies,” she says, dripping scorn. “Don’t give me studies. Look at Tee. Look at all the exercise she did. She never stopped exercising. Look what happened to her.”

End of discussion. Tee, her old friend and contemporary, took physical fitness seriously, and wound up bedbound in a nursing home, felled by osteoporosis and strokes, while my mother, who has not broken a sweat in the last 60 years, still totters around on ever-thinning pins. So much for exercise. So much for studies. So much for modern clinical medicine, based on the randomized allocation of treatment and placebo. All that beautiful science, stymied by the single, incontrovertible, inescapable image of Tee, the one who exercised but grew hunched and crippled anyway.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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The Hannah Poling case and the rebranding of autism by antivaccinationists as a mitochondrial disorder

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I seem to have taken on the role of the primary vaccine blogger of this little group of bloggers trying desperately to hold the forces of pseudoscience and magical thinking at bay in the face of powerful forces trying to “integrate” prescientific belief systems with science- and evidence-based medicine, a process that would be unthinkable in just about any other field of applied science, such as aeronautics or the physics used in engineering, just as creationists try to “integrate” religion with biology. Although I do have a strong interest in the antivaccination movement in general and the claim that vaccines, or the mercury in the thimerosal preservatives that was in many childhood vaccines in the U.S. until late 2001 or early 2002 (when they were taken out) are a major cause or contributor to autism, such had not been my intention. When I started here on SBM, I had intended to be a lot more diverse. Indeed, I had even had another topic entirely in mind for this week’s post, but, as happens far too often, news events have overtaken me in the form of a story that was widely reported at the end of last week. It was all over the media on Thursday evening and Friday, showing up on CNN, Larry King Live, the New York Times, and NPR. It happens to be the story of a girl from Georgia named Hannah Poling whose case before the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP), which had originally part of a much larger proceeding known as the Autism Omnibus in which nearly 5,000 parents are petitioning the VICP for compensation based on the claim that their children’s autism were caused by vaccines, was settled by the government. This settlement was based on the observation that Poling had a rare genetic mitochondrial disease that may have been exacerbated by a series of vaccines that she had, after which, among many other problems, Hannah regressed and developed some autism-like symptoms and then months later a seizure disorder. Instantly, it was being trumpeted all over the Internet, blogosphere, and media that the government had “admitted” that vaccines cause autism. One particularly excitable antivaccinationist named Kent Heckenlively (whom we’ve met before), even went so far as to foreshadow the propaganda blitz that was to come as he wrote on the antivaccine blog Age of Autism a full week before this news blitz began:

It’s official.  The sky has fallen.  The fat lady has sung.  Pigs are flying.

[...]

In a settlement, the settling party tries to admit as little as possible.  It’s like what I imagine the settlement claim against Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones case must look like.  Nowhere in the document does he admit to dropping his pants in a hotel room and asking her to kiss it.  It likely says something along the lines of he concedes they were in a hotel room together, they were alone, and something happened which formed the basis of her law suit.

But we all know what happened there.  And we know what this settlement means.

The government just dropped its pants.

One thing this shows us is just how the blogosphere can be bubbling with information that lets one predict a public relations blitz like this. The mainstream press seemed to have been totally blindsided by this story, but if reporters had only been checking the right blogs, they would have known about it a full week before, if not longer. In any case, since Thursday, there has been a very well orchestrated public relations campaign to frame this settlement as the government “admitting” that vaccines cause autism. It’s not, as I will try to explain, but framing it that ways has thus far been a very effective PR strategy for antivaccinationists. In my nearly three years of following this topic, I thought that I had never seen anything like it before.

But I had.

This case is nothing more than a demonstration that everything old is new again and that, no matter what the science says, it’s always all about the vaccines, the claims of antivaccinationists otherwise notwithstanding, as I will now show. What we are seeing now, as we did a few years ago, is the rebranding of autism as a condition in order to serve the purposes of the antivaccination movement.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Science-Based Nutrition

One of the most successful propaganda campaigns within health care in the last few decades has been the re-branding of nutrition as “alternative” or out of the mainstream of scientific medicine. I have marveled at how successful this campaign has been, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary. I suppose this is partly a manifestation of the public’s short-term memory, but it also seems to reflect basic psychology.

Some History

There is evidence that most ancient cultures recognized the importance of diet in health. The Greeks recognized both the benefits of a varied diet and the negative health consequences of obesity, for example. But knowledge of nutrition was limited to these broad observations and was mixed with superstition and cultural beliefs.

The science of nutrition probably dates back to 1614 when scurvy (the disease that results from vitamin C deficiency) was first recognized as a dietary deficiency, one that could be cured by eating fresh fruits and vegetables. In 1747 Lind conducted what might be the first clinical trial – systematically comparing various diets for the treatment of scurvy and finding that citrus fruits were the key to treatment.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Ultrasound Screening: Misleading the Public

There is a new industry offering preventive health screening services direct to the public. A few years ago it was common to see ads for whole body CT scan screening at free-standing CT centers. That fad sort of faded away after numerous organizations pointed out that there was considerable radiation involved and the dangers outweighed any potential benefits.

Now what I most commonly see are ads for ultrasound screening. In fact, I am sick and tired of finding them in my mailbox and between the pages of my local newspaper. Ultrasound is certainly safe, with no radiation exposure. It sounds like it might be a good idea, but it isn’t.

Life Line Screening advertises itself as “America’s leading provider of quality health screenings.” They offer “4 tests in less than 1 hour – tests that can save your life.” They travel around the country, setting up their equipment in community centers, churches, and YMCAs. For $129 you get ultrasounds of your carotid arteries, your abdominal aorta, your legs, and your heel bone. They mail you your results 21 days later. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Public Health

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